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the Complete Review
the complete review - histiry / sex

The Medieval Chastity Belt

Albrecht Classen

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To purchase The Medieval Chastity Belt

Title: The Medieval Chastity Belt
Author: Albrecht Classen
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2007
Length: 156 pages
Availability: The Medieval Chastity Belt - US
The Medieval Chastity Belt - UK
The Medieval Chastity Belt - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Myth-Making Process
  • With seven illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : thorough, and both the examples and Classen's analysis of interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American. Hist. Rev. . (114:1) 2/2009 R.M.Karras
The German Quart. . (81:3) Summer/2008 K.C.Kelly
J. of British Studies . (47:2) 4/2008 Angela Jane Weisl
JEGP . (108:1) 1/2009 Claudia Bornholdt
Sixteenth Cent. J. . (40:3) Fall/2009 Stephen E. Lahey
Speculum . (83:2) 4/2008 James A. Brundage

  From the Reviews:
  • "Another nail in the coffin of the chastity belt should not be necessary. However, like the droit de seigneur, this myth refuses to die. Albrecht Classen's book ought to kill it, but as he points out, people are quite willing to go on believing demonstrably untrue things about contemporary as well as medieval culture. Classen is most successful at reviewing and rejecting the medieval evidence, especially from literature, that has been adduced for the use of chastity belts. (...) Classen's second aim of tracing the development of the myth of the chastity belt from the Middle Ages to today is less successful, not because his argument is wrong but because it is hard to follow. (...) The book has not been well proofread" - Ruth Mazo Karras, American Historical Review

  • "(W)e now have the definitive history, not of the chastity belt, but of the myth of the chastity belt, which is an important distinction. (...) Classen also examines the literary uses of the chastity belt, designed, it seems, to demonstrate the foolishness of men and the perfidy of women. Classen also argues that modern feminists have deployed the trope of the chastity belt in order to make graphically material the oppression of women." - Kathleen Coyne Kelly, The German Quarterly

  • "The fascinating subject brings the reader to the work with high expectations and, in a sense, Classen delivers. His exploration of the myth of the chastity belt is thorough, scrupulously and extensively researched, and often quite penetrating in it of how the modern imagination creates the Middle Ages. (...) This is ambitious and intriguing, and the macrostructure of his argument delivers what it says it will. (...) What is less intriguing about The Medieval Chastity Belt is some of its own apparatus, which seems to prove its point as heavy-handedly as Classen suggests the mythmakers do." - Angela Jane Weisl, Journal of British Studies

  • "Classen's investigation of the primary sources makes a convincing case in favor of an unfortunately often forgotten basic rule of scholarship that stipulates that it is the actual sources that need to be consulted in order to make claims about the literature and culture of the Middle Ages. (...) Classen does an admirable job of collecting and tracing the pertinent sources that contributed to the myth of the medieval chastity belt. (...) Classen not only truly succeeds in debunking the myth of the medieval chastity belt, his study can also serve as a welcome tool for teachers who are all too weary of their students' indiscriminate use of online and printed resources (.....) Classen's methodology and results are sound and truly commendable. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about their actual presentation in the book, as the text is plagued by mistakes that at times interfere with comprehension." - Claudia Bornholdt, Journal of English and Germanic Philology

  • "Classen's project is to examine their lore for historicity and, in so doing, to show how myth evolves into established "fact" in spite of the obvious physical unlikelihood of people actually wearing such diabolical restraints for any prolonged period of time. His energies are well spent, too (.....) The great value of Classen's study is in the dissection of the evolution of satire into myth into fact." - Stephen E. Lahey, Sixteenth Century Journal

  • "Albrecht Classen set out to search for evidence in medieval literature and art that might have given rise to the improbable chastity-belt scenario and to try to determine why it continues to flourish as part of the popular mythology about the Middle Ages. (...) Like other popular myths, such as UFOs, it is unlikely to disappear simply because no factual basis for it can be demonstrated." - James A. Brundage, Speculum

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As Albrecht Classen -- and many of those he quotes -- repeatedly point out, and as even the most basic reflection makes obvious, the female chastity belt, as commonly thought of -- a metal belt and shield(s), locked in place for extended periods of time, to prevent a woman from engaging in sexual intercourse -- is an absurdity. The concept might, at first blush, seem plausible -- knights and nobles wanting to ensure that their wives don't stray and aren't violated during their prolonged absences -- but, as Classen notes, it's self-evident that: "a woman would not even survive the consequent hygienic and health problems after several days". Yet the belief that the fantasy-devices actually existed and were regularly used remains widespread.
       In The Medieval Chastity Belt Classen pierces the myth -- not least in closely examining and analyzing the historical (often literary) record -- while also considering the myth's remarkable resiliency. Among his observations cum complaints is that:

     Surprisingly, modern research has shown hardly any sign of interest in the chastity belt and has allowed this myth to grow unabated among the nonacademic readership.
       Yet what scholarship and other would-be serious references (such as encyclopedias and histories) he does find often include claims and statements that likely help perpetuate the myth.
       As the sub-title of his monograph suggests, Classen is also interested in the 'myth-making process' per se, with the chastity belt a useful -- because so outrageous -- example. He opens his book with a discussion of the myth that, as late as the Middle Ages -- and, indeed, until Columbus sailed the ocean blue --, the earth was still believed to be flat -- noting that: "the myth of medieval people having been entirely convinced of the flat-earth theory has been a dominant feature in common modern notions about the Middle Ages", despite having long been shown to be unfounded. He also wraps his study up with a brief discussion of a similarly completely debunked myth about those times, in a short chapter about the supposed jus primæ noctis ('droit de seigneur'), yet another misrepresentation of the medieval world.
       Classen uses these examples in arguing that:
(M)odern opinions about the Middle Ages often draw from a mythical concept of the past which relies on false interpretation, or on fake objects, most likely in order to pride themselves of our scientific, social, and political progress.
       In part then, The Medieval Chastity Belt is also a defense of sorts of the Middle Ages -- an illumination, as it were, of an era misleadingly also referred to as the Dark Ages, a time when, in fact, much was not much different than it is today.
       As he notes:
Myths have always been a major factor in dealing with the past, especially because they offer easier, more radical, and more contrastive perspectives; they simplify and create moral categories and hierarchies in our thinking, putting the present clearly ahead of the past because history must have developed, hermeneutically speaking, in a linear, progressive fashion.
       The myth of the chastity belt has presumably proved particularly persistent in part because there would seem to be (physical) examples of such devices, as well as references to them in a variety of writings dating back at least to the Renaissance. Classen acknowledges that there are would-be chastity belts in private and museum collections; there are several photographs of such in the book, as well numerous descriptions of woodcuts and other illustrations of such devices, both by themselves and in apparent use. (There are, in fact, surprisingly few illustrations in this volume, and more would certainly have been welcome; Classen's detailed descriptions give a good impression, but pictorial reproductions are generally much clearer.) Nevertheless, as he points out, there aren't actually that many known pieces -- certainly nowhere near what one would expect if the use of the device had been at all widespread --; they seem more like display models, forgeries, in a manner of speaking, based on the fanciful idea but not ever put to use. So also, he notes how much is made of one particular example, of a corpse found wearing what appears to be a chastity belt: aside from the fact that there are other plausible explanations for the metal belt the skeleton is wearing, it remains an unicum -- hardly lending much support to the idea that such a device was commonly used in those times.
       As Classen notes, many illustrations are ambiguous -- what is depicted could be seen as a form of chastity belt, but isn't necessarily so -- and/or allegorical. And while descriptions of the use of chastity-belt-like devices can be found in literature, Classen argues that these are generally in the main satirical and obviously not meant to be taken literally. He goes through the literature carefully, describing and quoting from a fascinating variety of literary works to make his case.
       Several of the stories and poems he cites and mentions do describe chastity belts and putting them to use in some detail, but Classen argues that, aside from being unrealistic they are practically always clearly satirical. This argument isn't always entirely convincing -- and, indeed, Classen wonders about a particularly vivid and explicit sixteenth-century Welsh poem why it: "has never been cited by any of the defenders of the chastity belt", since, taken literally, it would seem to be a very clear example of the device. (He adds that perhaps these defenders: "would not have comprehended at any case the satirical nature of either text" -- the satirical being his default explanation for any depiction of the chastity belt that might seem to take the device and its use seriously.)
       As Classen notes, there have been few serious studies of the chastity belt -- leaving also what little 'scholarship' or discussion of any sort there is, notably Eric John Dingwall's 1923 The Girdle of Chastity, with an outsized (and baleful) influence. As he shows, even as Dingwall and other writers admit to some of the implausibility of the device ever having really been put to use on any scale, they treat it seriously enough that the more sensational possibility -- that it was actually put to use -- is what people take from their writing. So also Classen looks at how chastity belts are treated in reference works -- noting also more generally that:
     The two genres of lexicons and encyclopedias play a major role in the establishment of myths because once an idea has entered such a reference work, it becomes almost impervious to critical examination and unchangeably insists on representing a factual phenomenon over many editions.
       Classen can at times seem to want to have it both ways, tying himself in some knots, as when he finds: "This noteworthy dearth of entries on the 'chastity belt' in the Anglophone world, however, does not necessarily suggest that the myth did not have some impact on the public opinion". The extensive examples he gives, however, do support his basic points -- notably, in works of reference, presenting chastity belts as historic and plausible.
       It is fascinating to see what contortions some of the others who have propagated the myth go through, the sensationalism of the possibility of such a device existing too good not to indulge in, even as common sense is telling them that this is simply too far-fetched. Classsen's thorough (if somewhat circuitous) tour through the literature, historic as well as (often would-be) scholarly, is a fascinating one, ranging from sly literary satire to all-too credulous documentation and (would-be) analysis.
       The chastity belt does differ from many myths in that, while basically only a literary (or pictorial) device, it is not entirely a physical impossibility (unlike, say, an invisibility-cloak). While it can't be put to use the way myth has it -- as a long-term preventive measure -- it can, at least in the very short term, function as such -- and this grain of possibility is apparently tantalizing enough to the popular imagination that, along with it being the perfect symbol of men trying to control women, the myth around it survives, and many people remain willing to believe that in olden, backward times folks perhaps did take things to such greater extremes.
       So it also goes back again to Classen's observation that: "Myths function so well because they allow those who disseminate them to project a barbaric past and contrast it with the advances of modern civilization". This certainly seems to be the case with the chastity belt -- though it is ironic that in the present-day, where the belief in the most fanciful myths and conspiracies has exploded (thanks in no small part to the internet and especially social media) it is often 'modern civilization' that is presented as having gone all wrong, straying from the good old ways of yore -- mostly of a moral and structural (society, politics) sort but extending, astonishingly, even to scientific and technological advances such as immunizations.
       The Medieval Chastity Belt is a thorough study of the historic chastity belt and its representation, and very good in collecting and presenting the historical sources and mentions -- clearly showing that, while there are instances of it appearing in literary or art works in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as a few actual examples of such a device, the chastity belt is far more notable for its general omission -- i.e. it was never, in any sense, widespread. The limited mentions and examples, and how they were interpreted in later times, especially the twentieth century, are fascinating -- not least in how a very few examples and very limited scholarship (mainly, Dingwall's study) shaped and are responsible for the myth.
       Classen's monograph is also of interest in, more generally, considering how myths come about, and for what reasons they can be persistent -- though the problem has grown far beyond what he describes in these pages with his limited examples (the chastity belt; the flat-earth theory; jus primæ noctis).

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 August 2022

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The Medieval Chastity Belt: Albrecht Classen: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Sex-related books

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About the Author:

       Albrecht Classen teaches at the University of Arizona.

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© 2022 the complete review

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